Can art save us from fundamentalism?
London, Rain, and Rothko – each was a stranger to the Navajo Reservation mission camp where Jakob grew up in the 1980s. At the time, he took every opportunity to share the gospel with his Native American friends, even as he ‘They were playing endless cowboy and Indian games in the deserts of Arizona: “The Navajo kids always wanted to be the cowboys, because the cowboys always win,” they said. “In his early twenties, Jakob assumed he would follow in his Pentecostal parents’ footsteps, attend Bible school, and enter full-time ministry. He almost did.” But then someday, “I told me. he,
âI entered a dimly lit room. The space felt like a small chapel. [. . .] Tall dark paintings stretched from floor to ceiling. I sat with them for hours, soaking up the lines and colors, venturing into the empty spaces and the spaces beyond themâ¦ I would later learn that Mark Rothko said, âThose who cry in front of my paintings live the same religious experience that I had to paint them. This is what happened to me, and it was unlike any religious experience I had had before. I can confidently say, 20 years later, that there would never have been a loss of my conservative evangelical worldview without this encounter with Rothko’s transcendent work on that rainy afternoon at Tate Modern in London. Indeed, without the arts â Rothko, Bob Dylan, Hemingway, Kerouac, to name a few â I’m not sure there would have been any upheaval in my religious beliefs. Sometimes gradually and sometimes with immediate effect, the aesthetic experiences burst the evangelical Christian bubble that was my world.
Every line in this brief account is fascinating and informative. But I want to focus on Jakob’s phrase, “aesthetic experiences burst the evangelical Christian bubble”. Whether he knew it or not, Jakob was reaffirming a concept that he is ubiquitous in modern aesthetic theory. Philosophers from Kant and Schiller to Adorno and Zizek have become persuasive about art’s unique ability to disrupt and rework our most deeply rooted concepts, categories, and presuppositions. It is precisely this theory of the disruptive capacities of art that inspired me to find hundreds of former evangelicals who, like Jakob, had left the fold through the intervention of the arts.
I started this ethnographic project as a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, where I had undertaken a course in religion and the arts. As I immersed myself in modern aesthetic theory, I became aware of an almost obsessive fascination with the disruptive capacities of art. If the philosophers of previous eras have shown themselves to be poetic about the soothing and uplifting qualities of the beautiful, the theorist of modern aesthetics tends to underline the capacity of art to destabilize our certainties and to disfigure us. With all due respect to the philosophers, I wanted to test for myself the limits of these assertions through an ethnographic study: would the theory be based on the lived experience of real human beings? Could art disrupt the beliefs and practices of, for example, people who have been imbued – all their lives – with a particular religious community? What about a person who had been raised in the most conservative strains of 20?e American evangelism of the century? Could art even disrupt this?
Formulating the general idea of ââthe study was easy enough, but how would I actually find these ancient evangelicals? I landed on two amazing field sites. The first is The Oregon Extension, a semester-long study program in the southern Cascades of Oregon, which was founded in 1975 by a small team of renegade professors from Evangelical Trinity College in Illinois. Each fall semester, this small school attracts between twenty-five and forty students from conservative evangelical Christian colleges and challenges them, through fiction and poetry, to ask tough questions about their faith. Many Oregon Extension alumni remember their participation in the program (even 20 years later) as the moment when they disavowed the “fundamentalist side of evangelical Christianity”, as one alumnus put it. The arts are often at the very center of the stories they tell.
My second field site is the Bob Jones University School of Fine Arts. This vibrant art school, founded in 1947, is housed in the self-proclaimed “Fundamentalist” Christian University in Greenville, South Carolina. It has the largest faculty of all the schools in the university and is famous for its world-class Shakespeare productions, operas, museums and galleries. For many Bob Jones students and alumni, the arts go hand in hand with their faith, although some aesthetic experiences challenge them to revise aspects of their religious heritage. As a fervent alumnus and now faculty member of the School of Fine Arts recalls: âThe arts to Bob Jones were a key part of my break with the fundamentalism of my educationâ¦ Hamlet, at Goethe Faust, and many othersâ¦ deepened and enriched my evangelical faith. But for other Bob Jones alumni, an anxiety of irreconcilability between religion Ã la Bob Jones and the experience of certain aesthetic masterpieces has shattered their evangelical identity, sometimes a wrecking ball.
Hundreds of former students of the Oregon Extension and the Bob Jones School of Fine Arts agreed to participate in my study; nearly a hundred of them wrote briefs for the project and went through a series of interviews with me. As I delved into the weeds of their experience, I found answers to my questions about the extent of the disturbing effects of art on deeply rooted religious beliefs. Virtually all of the study participants provided vivid examples of how art disrupted at least two particular aspects of what they call “a fundamentalist state of mind”:
1) Art has shaken their felt need for “absolute certainty” in matters of religious belief.
Holly S., for example, provided a detailed account of the process she went through as a 20-year-old street evangelist – who preached on the love of God and the fires of hell without a shadow. of a doubt in her mind – to be a post-Christian artist. Right after her twenty-first birthday, a professor at the Oregon Extension put a big book of Russian fiction in her hand. “The characters of The Karamazov brothers started to feel like family, âshe says,â and Ivan Karamazov’s doubts slowly saturated my soul. “
2) Art has overturned their hard line of division between initiates and strangers, between âtrueâ Christians (evangelicals) and non-Christians.
Barry S., for example, provided a touching account of how the films of David Lynch, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Ingmar Bergman “made me tremble as they recognized that the full range of needs, wants, fears and desires humans were as intimately connected to my being as they were to anyone else’s â Christian or non-Christian. I couldn’t deny it anymore. And I didn’t want to. The stone wall of division between him and all non-evangelicals “has collapsed”.
I have given you some real examples here, but I could have given you hundreds. The theorists of modern aesthetics were clearly on to something. Of course, we must avoid claims that modern aesthetic experience has a universalizable effect. It all depends on the context and the reception. And yet, the accounts of the men and women in my study lay bare the astonishing power of the arts to disrupt and rework deeply held beliefs and practices.
As much as my ethnographic work convinced me of the extent of art’s disruptive capacities, it taught me something else about art. The same post-evangelicals who emphasize the unsettling effects of aesthetic experience will often describe the arts as a source of great âcomfortâ. The arts, they say, have lent a comforting and flexible form to the perceived formlessness of belief and identity that accompanied their initial forays out of evangelism and into the eerie realms of questions and doubts. The arts, they suggest, are becoming a different way of knowing and ignoring that has generated and intensified the experience of uncertainty, while making it habitable by increasing their capacity to abide in mystery and half-knowledge.
If this is true for these ancient evangelicals, it can be true for any of us human beings. The participants in this study thus taught me to keep my eyes open for the many ways the arts are saving each of us – every day – from what these Oregon Extension alumni and Bob Jones call a “state of” fundamentalist spirit “- religious or otherwise. In that sense, yes, art can save us from fundamentalism.
Image credit featured: The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.